U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Last Twentieth-Century Ideology Standing?

“In the end, what is striking about this book is the great difference between the 20th-century world it describes and the present. Totalitarianism has disappeared, except in a few small countries like Cuba and North Korea; a risen Asia represents as much a cultural as an ideological challenge; religion has made a political comeback everywhere. The undergraduate students I teach were all born after the fall of the Berlin Wall; for them, the huge ideological battles among Communism, fascism and liberalism are neither meaningful nor interesting. They are fortunate not to live in a world where ideas could be translated into monstrous projects for the transformation of society, and where being an intellectual could often mean complicity in enormous crimes. Documenting this 20th century, then, is an important achievement of a scholar and intellectual whose premature passing we should all regret.” 

Francis Fukuyama reviewing Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century
New York Times Book Review, February 5, 2012
(emphasis mine)
I toyed with the idea of simply posting alongside this quotation a selection of pictures: of the Foxconn plant in China, of Fallujah, perhaps, or Misrata, or Gaza City, of the wreckage of the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, or the improvised monument to the thousands of recent homicide victims in Ciudad Juárez.

But I think this quotation deserves a little more than such visual snark.

To begin with, especially when compared to many of his neoconservative brethren, Fukuyama is a fairly measured, if somewhat one-note, thinker.  He was one of the first of his political tribe to criticize the war on Iraq.  And the passage I quoted comes at the end of a fairly celebratory review of the life of a scholar who Fukuyama profoundly disagreed with and a book that, as Fukuyama notes, attacks him in in its pages.*  Given the tendency of others who disagreed with Judt, especially on Israel, to utterly denigrate him, Fukuyama deserves credit for looking past his disagreements with him and for finding value in his work.**

Nevertheless, this conclusion to Fukuyama’s review stunned me. How can an informed observer of the world today conclude that, outside of Cuba and North Korea, there are no “monstrous projects for the transformation of society” at work in the world today, let alone that intellectuals are no longer “complicit in enormous crimes”?

It’s easy to see Fukuyama as stuck in the world of the immediate post-Cold War. Indeed, one might argue that Fukuyama’s fame is a symptom of that moment.  Even at the time of its publication, Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?” seemed in a narrow sense to be a product of its moment. But Fukuyama himself pointed out in his essay that his ideas were not particularly new and gave explicit credit to his teacher Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel.  Though Fukuyama’s ideas were popularized at a moment when, to the surprise of many, the short 20th century came to a surprising, or at least apparent, halt, those ideas were very much of that short 20th century.

This should be even more apparent to us today as we read Fukuyama’s pronouncement quoted above.  And we needn’t know anything about Russian-French Hegelians to reach this conclusion.

Fukuyama’s pronouncement of the end-of-ideology sounds, for all the world, like old-fashioned Cold War liberalism of the Daniel Bell variety.  Though the turn of the millennium allows Fukuyama to dress the argument up as a farewell to the 20th century, his sentiment would be just as at home, and just as problematic, at the turn of the 1960s.

So rather than joining Fukuyama in remaking the wheel, I’ll answer him with an excerpt from one of the most famous rebuttals of this sort of thing from half a century ago (though, as the kids say, read the whole thing):

Many intellectual fashions, of course . . . stand in the way of a release of the imagination — about the cold war, the Soviet bloc, the politics of peace, about any new beginnings at home and abroad. But the fashion I have in mind is the weariness of many NATO intellectuals with what they call “ideology,” and their proclamations of “the end of ideology.” So far as I know, this began in the mid-fifties, mainly in intellectual circles more or less associated with the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the magazine Encounter. Reports on the Milan Conference of 1955 heralded it; since then, many cultural gossips have taken it up as a posture and an unexamined slogan. Does it amount to anything? . . . 

Ultimately, the-end-of-ideology is based upon a disillusionment with any real commitment to socialism in any recognisable form. That is the only “ideology” that has really ended for these writers. But with its ending, all ideology, they think, has ended. That ideology they talk about; their own ideological assumptions, they do not. 

Underneath this style of observation and comment there is the assumption that in the West there are not more real issues or even problems of great seriousness. The mixed economy plus the welfare state plus prosperity — that is the formula. US capitalism will continue to be workable, the welfare state will continue along the road to ever greater justice. In the meantime, things everywhere are very complex, let us not be careless, there are great risks. 

This posture — one of “false consciousness” if there ever was one — stands in the way, I think, of considering with any chances of success what may be happening in the world. 

First and above all, it foes rest upon a simple provincialism. If the phrase “the end of ideology” has any meaning at all, it pertains to self-selected circles of intellectuals in the richer countries. It is in fact merely their own self-image. The total population of these countries is a fraction of mankind; the period during which such a posture has been assumed is very short indeed. To speak in such terms of much of Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Soviet bloc is merely ludicrous. Anyone who stands in front of audiences — intellectual or mass — in any of these places and talks in such terms will be shrugged off (if the audience is polite) or laughed at out loud (if the audience is more candid and knowledgeable). The end-of-ideology is a slogan of complacency, circulating among the prematurely middle-aged, centred in the present, and in the rich Western societies. In the final analysis, it also rests upon a disbelief in the shaping by men of their own futures — as history and as biography. It is a consensus of a few provincials about their own immediate and provincial situation. 

Second, the end-of-ideology is of course itself an ideology — a fragmentary one, to be sure, and perhaps more a mood. The end-of-ideology is in reality the ideology of an ending; the ending of political reflection itself as a public fact. It is a weary know-it-all justification — by tone of voice rather than by explicit argument — of the cultural and political default of the NATO intellectuals.

Things have changed, of course.  The mixed economy itself is now under attack.  And those arguing that  (twentieth-century) ideology has come to an end have become more aggressive about their ideas and their (presumably positive) potential, though they still don’t see them as ideological. But they also still seem to ignore their human costs.  And they most certainly fail to see that, as much as anyone, they are trapped in the thought-world of the last century.

* This is the moment at which I need to pause and complain, yet again, of the hash that Sam Tanenhaus has made of the Times Book Review.  Book review editors more interested in serious, critical assessments of books than in pie fights do not ask people attacked by a book to review it.  That Tanenhaus didn’t, in fact, get a pie fight from this assignment doesn’t render him blameless.

** Though clearly some of Fukuyama’s kindness is rooted in Judt’s being a reformed former worshipper of the God That Failed.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Great post. I don’t know about Fukuyama’s End of History, but I must say I am sympathetic to Judt’s view that non-Marxist social democracy, however imperfect, is the best our society is going to do. I find Mills just as dated as Bell here. Whether Judt’s view is in fact an ideology or simply a pragmatic response to the 20th century may be a reasonable thing to debate, or may just be a question of semantics. I would argue that Judt, like his new idol Keynes, was not ideological, that is he did not argue for any absolute truth as to the way forward. If Judt was dogmatic about anything, it was his universalist rejection of identity politics, which Fukuyama alludes to here. But even that is ambiguous. I discussed this all in my post on the Tony Judt retrospective at the January 2012 AHA in Chicago, which I’m going to plug here shamelessly:


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